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Representation, Interaction, and Engagement: MPs and Constituents

The 20th parliament of the Maldives faces the challenge of bridging the gap between expectations and actual responsibilities.

26 May 2024, MVT 11:23
Majlis emergency sitting
26 May 2024, MVT 11:23

On April 21, the Maldives saw a parliamentary election that, while relatively smooth, brought several longstanding issues into sharp focus.

In the pre and post-election assessments by Transparency Maldives, they highlighted recurrent problems such as voters demanding payment and benefits for their votes, low representation of women, misuse of state resources, and challenges in facilitating voter representation by residency.

An analysis by The Edition revealed that while some members underperformed, one-third of the legislature switched parties, and many key legislative tasks remained untouched, pointing to the shortfalls of the 19th parliament.

This raises critical questions about the work required and expected from the 20th parliament and how the electorate can effectively hold their MPs accountable.

During the parliamentary campaign, many candidates emphasized maintaining close contact with their electorates, promising to open campaign offices within their constituencies. While this practice has not been normalized in the Maldives, official avenues for engagement have been created in the recent past. MPs have offices in the parliament premises and the parliament secretariat facilitates appointments with MPs upon request. The parliament’s website also allows constituents to send messages to their MPs (in english and dhivehi).

There have been many innovative approaches to constituent engagement adopted worldwide as well. For instance, In Slovenia, MPs have dedicated days to reach out to constituents. Other best practices include creating guides to resolve common issues and leveraging technology for communication, such as surveys, questionnaires, Zoom/Google calls, and public dialogues. Similarly, the US Congress holds town hall meetings, and UK MPs have constituent clinics called surgeries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, digital town hall meetings also became common in the UK. In Australia, MPs are active in community events and use mobile offices to reach constituents in remote districts.

While the need to enhance communication between MPs and their constituents remains, it is also a question of the purpose. It is a known fact that some electorates demand money or the facilitation of government services, such as services under NSPA or Aasandha, and MPs are demanded to expedite these services through unofficial means, which diverts their time and effort from their official responsibilities.

A re-elected MP shared his perspective "As an MP, my primary role is to bring in legislation and advocate for policies that benefit my constituents. However, I often receive requests to expedite services like Aasandha. While I understand the urgency, I believe my focus must remain on creating a system that ensures fair and timely services which would ultimately resolve the issue for all".

The Inter-Parliamentary Union Data suggests that citizens primarily hold parliamentarians accountable for services delivered outside parliament rather than their law-making role. The Global Parliament Report, surveying over 600 parliamentarians, shows that working on citizens' issues is the most time-consuming part of an MP's work.

Opinion polls suggest that the public views constituency service as the most critical part of an MP's role, even though MPs see law-making as their primary responsibility. A survey for the Global Parliamentary Report indicated that while 52.3 percent of MPs consider law-making their most important role, they believe citizens prioritize solving personal issues (36.4 percent), followed by law-making (20.3 percent), holding the government accountable (16.2 percent), and promoting local interests (13.1 percent).

Creating legislation is just one part of the equation; ensuring its enforcement is equally crucial. Under the constitution, Members of Parliament have several responsibilities that directly impact their constituents. They can present petitions on behalf of their voters, pushing the legislative assembly to take action on specific issues. MPs can introduce new bills to parliament and hold cabinet ministers accountable by questioning their performance if it falls short of expectations.

However, the responsibility doesn't rest solely with the MPs. Electorates also play a vital role in bringing accountability to the system by actively participating in discussions related to proposed bills and demanding the creation of avenues for such engagement. In this regard, the parliament's website provides information on MPs' activities, including the number of times they question ministers, what are their proposed works, and the committees they participate in.

The 2015 Maldives Democracy Survey revealed that many Maldivians lack confidence in key democratic institutions. While there was some improvement, a majority (57 percent) still had no confidence in parliament, and 49 percent had no confidence in political parties. While this trend may still be in effect, the 20th parliament of the Maldives faces the challenge of bridging the gap between expectations and actual responsibilities while also engaging with their constituents.

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